Nick Denton Bucks The Trend Du Jour, Thinks News Comments Are Worth Saving

from the baby,-bathwater dept

Last week, new New York Times public editor Liz Spayd said something completely and utterly crazy: she suggested that news outlets and websites should actually listen to and interact with their visitors in news comment sections. Given this is the age where most "enlightened" media outlets are now closing their comment sections and pretentiously pretending it's because they "value conversation," Spayd's comments were treated like the incoherent ramblings of a mad woman on some fronts, people claiming actually caring about readers was a form of "phony populism" and the "willfully naive" rhetoric of a bygone era.

But we've noted time and time again that by muzzling them or shoveling off your community to the homogonized blather of Facebook, you're pretty clearly saying you don't think your audience really matters. Countless editors refuse to believe this, by and large because nobody at a multi-million dollar media empire wants to actually have real conversations with the dirty plebeians they profess to be so selflessly dedicated to. The entire mechanism should be demolished, they argue, because commenters are mean and say bad things -- ignoring studies suggesting this can be easily fixed by giving a damn.

Nick Denton, likely overjoyed to talk about something other than Peter Thiel, last week indicated he's among this "willfully naive" minority that believes news comments are worth saving. Regardless of whether or not you like the Gawker empire, Denton makes it clear that maintaining communication with the company's customers is not only common sense, but embracing on-site comments makes money:
"The key is to distribute the moderation, to make every editorial team responsible for the discussions that their stories instigate. It’s not that hard—though it took several years and several million dollars for us to get it right. The commitment to quality discussions was one of the smartest decisions we made. In economic terms, we see a payoff not just in greater editorial leverage, but in time spent on page. On mobile, for instance, we outperform the other publishers by more than half: 81 seconds compared with a Google Analytics benchmark of 53 seconds. I think that’s largely because the pages are more interesting, for longer."
Again, it's worth noting that while Gawker spent a significant amount of money on its Kinja commenting platform with some mixed results, data has suggested that just having writers show up to talk can have a profound impact on the quality of comments. But Denton also focuses on the fact that stifling the inherent bi-directional communication nature of the Internet is just dumb, and many outlets just don't like comments because they advertise errors made in their reporting or commentary:
"Above all, this is just the way that Internet news should be. Why wouldn’t you want to tap the opinions and expertise of your readership? Unless you are embarrassed by them."
Despite all the media's bluster about social media being an adequate replacement for an "unsavable" comment section, the reality is many bigger media brands just don't like having real human beings pointing out when they're wrong in such an obvious and public fashion. If you've spent any time writing on the Internet, you probably know that the comment section, warts and all, is also stocked with some very bright people with wide ranging expertise who'll often provide invaluable corrections. Possibly right after they make a joke about your mom, but still.

Throwing out the entire concept of on-site comments because a jackass said something mean or pointed out you were wrong about something has never been much of a solution. Subsequently claiming you muzzled your customers because you wanted to "build relationships" and "value conversation" only informs these muted community members you also think they're all incredible, irredeemable morons. If that's the brand message you're actually pursuing in your quest to nab more advertising eyeballs? Phenomenal job.

Filed Under: comments, liz spayd, nick denton, websites
Companies: gawker


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Jul 2016 @ 4:37pm

    Techdirt is weirdly obsessed with other websites having comment sections.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      art guerrilla (profile), 20 Jul 2016 @ 4:50pm

      Re:

      oh, wow, that was -like- meta or sumpin...

      other than that brief bit of snark, i was pleased to see the point made several times that the 'mean' public are that way BECAUSE the media don't 'listen', don't like to be corrected, and don't serve us 99%, but Empire's 1%...
      the media shouts one-way to us 24/7/365 and are OFTEN not just 'wrong', but MORE importantly than 'wrong', is what they DON'T cover that is in OUR interests...
      *AND* they are surprised we are surly and unsympathetic to their capitulation to tee vee brain and the dictates of Empire's media konglomerate...
      buy a vowel and spell 'clueless'...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Jul 2016 @ 5:06pm

      Re:

      It's nice to have a place to talk about it since those other sites often don't have comments sections where you can discuss things like internet communities and comment systems.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Steve Zissou (profile), 21 Jul 2016 @ 2:33pm

        Re: Re:

        I've honestly had that experience... Motherboard was complaining about comments and I thought 'wow you guys are being asses' and scrolled down to comment...
        ~ woops ~
        No comments on Motherboard anymore.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      mattshow (profile), 21 Jul 2016 @ 7:41am

      Re:

      I was thinking the same thing. I get it, the TechDirt crowd likes comments sections and other blogs/media outlets are less enthusiastic about them. But does the topic really deserve this many stories written about it?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        John Fenderson (profile), 21 Jul 2016 @ 8:05am

        Re: Re:

        I think so. In my mind, it's not about what Techdirt prefers over what other sites prefer. It's about the overall reduction of one of the things that makes the internet itself valuable -- enabling the exchange of ideas and opinions between ordinary people.

        What the anti-comment news sites are doing has an important impact on society at large, and especially the intersection of society, technology, and business. That puts it squarely into Techdirt's stated area of interest.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TechDescartes (profile), 20 Jul 2016 @ 4:46pm

    I disagree

    You shouldn't let people comment on stories.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Jul 2016 @ 4:51pm

    The commentariat at Gawker sites is one of the primary reasons I look at them. Pointing out errors in reporting is a rather huge boon - unpaid readers doing your fact-checking? Providing links? Honing positions on the whetstone of trollery? How is that not a win?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Jul 2016 @ 5:11pm

      Re:

      What I love is when people involved in stories/articles participate in the comments - whether they're famous people or just a bystander in a local news article.

      I had a chat with one of my favorite science fiction authors when he popped into an IO9 discussion and that was awesome. But at my local news site for my community, a bystander will sometimes answer the questions that readers have that the article didn't bring up. It makes the news more real when you can actually get answers to your questions directly from eye witnesses.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 21 Jul 2016 @ 12:12pm

        Re: Re:

        But at my local news site for my community, a bystander will sometimes answer the questions that readers have that the article didn't bring up.

        Or at least someone pretending to be a bystander. Hard to be sure.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 21 Jul 2016 @ 4:43pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Anecdata: I followed a link in a Gawker (forget which arm) comment to info I needed during cancer treatment. Namely, that the NIH and Europe had declared the drug I was expected to take as a known human carcinogen. Not suspected, known. I didn't get that info from my doctors, seemed like a 'take it now and worry about the fallout later' kind of deal for them. For me, just me and my particular situation, that info was terribly important in the risk vs. benefit equations cancer patients are saddled with. I would haul the freight of fallout. It mattered in a terrible way. Someone bothered to paste a link. Someone was ABLE to paste a link.

          It was a totally unrelated type of article, too, ha!

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 21 Jul 2016 @ 8:50pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Sometimes there's corroborating evidence that the person is who they say they are or else someone spent a lot of effort to set up fake accounts to pretend to be someone with extra details that don't really benefit them. One eye witness who commented on an article had a profile on his account with the same avatar as the one used on the personal blog linked in the profile. Sure, it could have been faked, but who would waste that amount of time and effort? Not everyone on the internet is a jerk or a liar.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            nasch (profile), 21 Jul 2016 @ 9:14pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Not everyone on the internet is a jerk or a liar.

            I'm sure most of them are legit, but it's that one jerk/liar who makes you wonder about all the rest.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 22 Jul 2016 @ 7:29am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Hey, I'm with you on that. 'Citation needed'! Healthy skepticism. Maybe cynicism? It's why commenting is important. Pushback on bullshit talking like a duck. For every devoted sock puppeteer there's at least one rock-flipper. :)

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Jul 2016 @ 9:56pm

      Re:

      [i]unpaid readers doing your fact-checking? Providing links? Honing positions on the whetstone of trollery? How is that not a win?[/i]

      Oh, it's a win. It's just a bigger win if you can get all the benefits of it without your readers being able to see that [i]you were wrong[/i], or [i]there are counter arguments[/i] or [i]maybe you were misinformed[/i].

      They only need to see the result. Better to let them continue to believe news articles don't make mistakes.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Jul 2016 @ 5:08pm

    Of course Nick Denton likes the comment section. So many of gawkers articles are indistinguishable from troll-bait designed to get people arguing in the comments.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Atkray (profile), 20 Jul 2016 @ 5:44pm

    You have to have comments to succeed.


    Everyone knows that the only reason people read Techdirt is to see Whatever crash.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Udom (profile), 20 Jul 2016 @ 6:07pm

    Town Square

    Comment sections have been the digital town square of western democracies where ideas can compete. Banning comments silences opposing voices and undermines democracy. I often see errors or outright lies pass unchallenged these days. Talking with the citizens is a conversation. Talking at them is propaganda.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    aidian, 20 Jul 2016 @ 8:10pm

    Biggest obstacle to successful comments....

    ...is just time and staff. At least at most actual news organizations.

    I've never had the hate for Gawker that a lot of people do. I LIKE io9. I liked Consumerist before it was sold. But Gawker is built on aggregation, bloggers sharing their take, and lots of riffing on other people's reporting. The closest thing to reporting that I've ever seen on a Gawker property is some phone calls and emailing.

    In most organizations doing real reporting, staff time is precious and the demands on that time keep escalating. Without having staff hours to spend on cultivating, moderating, responding, and sometimes banning, the comments sections can easily become ignored. Next thing you know, it's a cesspool where the only people who bother are the rude and the boorish.

    I think comments are important. I think the public forum is one of the most important services a news operation provides. But I barely have time to ban the obscene, warn the profane, and make the occasional response.

    Sure, fostering your community should be a priority. And even my half-arsed efforts have really helped with our comments section. But given a choice between carefully tending comments and covering the latest way the city council is trying to rob the citizens (or whatever), most journalists will choose the latter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rich Kulawiec, 21 Jul 2016 @ 2:59am

    Misapplication of resources

    Again, it's worth noting that while Gawker spent a significant amount of money on its Kinja commenting platform with some mixed results

    Of course, a technically competent organization would have just installed a Mailman instance (free) with moderation turned on and archiving enabled. Software cost: zero. But Gawker, like many of the modern publishing sites, is run by mere newbies who do not understand how to utilize basic tools and thus inevitably waste enormous amounts of time and money creating complex ones that don't work as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    nasch (profile), 21 Jul 2016 @ 12:15pm

    Not that hard?

    "It’s not that hard — though it took several years and several million dollars for us to get it right."

    So... they're just really bad at it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Almost Anonymous (profile), 21 Jul 2016 @ 1:26pm

    A list

    I've started keeping a list of news sites with no comments sections, and I just avoid them. If I see a link with info I'm interested in that points to one, I'll try and find the same info elsewhere. To me, it's like the whole PS3 OtherOS debacle: how do you think you can offer some cool functionality and then retroactively take it away and not be affected?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Jul 2016 @ 8:51pm

      Re: A list

      "If I see a link with info I'm interested in that points to one, I'll try and find the same info elsewhere."

      Same here. I've gotten to the point that I have a gut reflex when I see the name of the publication that lacks a commenting system and I just search for alternate articles from other publications. They're literally losing readers due to the lack of a comment section.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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